The Comfort of Cookbooks

Last Friday, I was standing at the kitchen counter, fussing over a chicken…

On the stove, the pot of oil was hot and ready. All the vegetables were neatly julienned in separate bowls, waiting to play their part.

But first I had to cut this chicken into eight pieces. I hadn’t noticed when I’d chosen this “simple” french dinner recipe, but it was right there on the ingredient list: “One whole chicken, about 4 lbs., cut into 8 pieces” (emphasis mine, but I still think it should have been there in the first place). There were no instructions on how to do so. I rotated the bird on the cutting board, then flipped it, deciding to start with the wings. No, wait, the legs. But what if I couldn’t find the joint? What if I tore off too much skin, therefore ruining the entire meal, and I’d done all that fancy julienne chopping for nothing?

“It’s chicken, numbnuts,” Anthony Bourdain said. “This isn’t open-heart surgery, it’s dinner. Quit dicking around and cut up the bird.”

“But I don’t—”

“While we’re young, please.” He folded his tanned arms and leaned against the counter, waiting.

I threw up my hands and turned back to the cutting board. I hacked up the chicken and dropped it into the hot oil. An hour later, the kitchen was filled with a buttery, peppery aroma. I scooped out the messy but juicy chicken with great spoonfuls of tomatoes and onions. Poulet basquaise: a perfect dinner for this early summer night.

“That’ll do,” Bourdain said, nodding at the pot. I wanted to apologize for my drama earlier, but he was already heading for the table. “Now grab the wine.”

None of that’s true, of course. I’ve never met Anthony Bourdain. I did make poulet basquaise, but I was at home, by myself in my kitchen. I’d found the recipe that afternoon, in Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. Like millions of people — everyone I knew, it seemed — I had spent time that day revisiting Bourdain’s work. My Instagram feed had become an uninterrupted stream of quotes from Kitchen Confidential and the 1999 New Yorker essay that launched Bourdain’s phenomenal career as a writer, traveler and foul-mouthed American icon. It was June 8th, 2018, and Anthony Bourdain was dead at the age of 61.

Loss is a weird thing, and it’s even weirder when it comes to celebrity deaths. I didn’t understand, at first, why this one hit so hard, or why I sought solace in this old cookbook rather than one of Bourdain’s essays. I texted my husband: I feel silly, but I can’t shake the Bourdain news. I’d like to make one of his recipes for dinner. You okay with some kind of french-y chicken thing? My husband replied instantly: Me, too! And yes, french-y chicken sounds great.

I chose Bourdain’s poulet basquaise right off the bat because it looked easy (again, overlooking the part where I’d need to debone a chicken—NBD). But I spent at least another hour looking through the pages, reading Bourdain’s instructions and little side-notes: “Keep the quail carcasses for making the sauce, and if you want to be arty-farty, reserve the drumsticks too,” he writes in the headnotes under Chartreuse of Quail. In the instructions, he suggests that, “if you’re uncomfortable [using a] ramekin for some reason, you can do the same damn thing with a heavy soup cup. Got it? Capisce?” The recipe ends with a slap on the back and a deadpan compliment that may or may not be sarcasm: “Congratulations. You have completed one fancy-ass dish.”

Recipe writing is, by necessity, pretty direct. You don’t need many adjectives to explain a baked potato, and you don’t want to confuse the reader or overcomplicate things with flowery language. A recipe needs clarity, not voice. And yet, that voice always comes through. Chefs like Bourdain know that a cookbook is more than a manual. To truly learn a dish, you must be taught, and so they teach. They write themselves into the text, and every time you open it, there they are. And as usual, every teacher is a little different.

Marcella Hazan, for instance, is a task-master. Before becoming one of the foremost authorities on Italian cuisines, Hazan was on track to become a scientist. She earned doctorates in biology and the natural sciences, and she brought that exacting, no-nonsense specificity to each of her cookbooks. Nearly every recipe ends with strict instructions to “serve at once.” She includes such painfully precise measurements as 1/4 teaspoon of garlic (and no, you absolutely may not use a garlic press). Her polenta method requires that you add the cornmeal “in a very thin stream, letting a fistful of it run through nearly closed fingers. You should be able to see the individual grains spilling into the pot.” Somehow you must keep an eye on each tick-sized grain of cornmeal, and at the same time, “make sure the water is always boiling.” Oh, and you also have to grow a third arm so you can simultaneously whisk while you’re doing all this. That’s one step, by the way. The next step is standing at the stove, stirring continuously until the polenta “forms a mass” in 40 to 45 minutes. Did you need a bathroom break? Too bad.

Julia Child, on the other hand, cares nothing about time. Not like Hazan, at least. It’s done when it’s done — when the sauce gives off an aromatic steam, or when the pastry shells puff up like magic in the oven. She is the enthusiastic art-teacher of the cookbook shelf, and her delight comes through in every page of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Take the classic French omelette: “a smooth, gently swelling, golden oval that is tender and creamy inside.” The hardest part, she says, is simply believing that you can do it. You have to take hold of that pan handle with both hands, tilt it above the stove, then shake it vigorously. “You must have the courage to be rough or the eggs will not loosen themselves from the bottom of the pan,” Child urges. So, do not hesitate. Be brave. And if it doesn’t work, oh well. “Push it into shape with the back of a fork,” she writes.

This is what I love about recipes: Indeed, the writing is instructive, but it is also intimate. The chef is speaking directly to you, guiding you, scolding you, supporting you, every step of the way. I stand up straight when I cook with Hazan, feeling her sharp eye on my hands as I level out the garlic in my teeniest measuring spoon. I save Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon for the coldest day in February, when I am in need of a day at the stove, whipping up something warm and heartening. I can hear her hooting laughter as the stew meat hits the oil with a startling crackle. “And we’re off!” she cheers. “You know, dear, this will be even more flavorful tomorrow.”

Cookbooks are a particular comfort, on bad days or during times of grief and loss. It’s not only that they help with the cooking of comfort food — though there is healing in that, certainly — but also the people they bring to life. That’s why, I realized, I didn’t reach for Bourdain’s famous essays, but for his old cookbook. I don’t mean to knock the rest of his work — the man never wrote a boring sentence in his life, as far as I can tell — but his recipes are different. In them, Bourdain is at his most joyful. There’s an ease and excitement as he tells you to put on some music and rinse the beans, then suggests you move that pot off the heat before you add the cognac, “unless you like setting your hair on fire.”

He hollers and nudges, tells you not to be a baby, tells you that you can do it. Broke the butter sauce? Who fuckin’ hasn’t? “I’ll tell you what I tell every rookie cook in my kitchen,” Bourdain writes in the introduction. “‘Throw it out. Start over. Do you understand what you did wrong? Good. Now don’t do it again.’” Screw-ups are good, he continues. “Screw-ups — and bouncing back from screw-ups — help you conquer fear.”

Quit trying to be a wunderkind and just keep trying, Bourdain argues. You do not need genius to be a good cook (which is great, ‘cause you ain’t got it, bud). “You need the will,” he says. “You need the desire. You need the determination to go on — even after you’ve scorched the first batch of stew, burned the sauce, mutilated the fish fillet, and lopped off a hunk of fingertip.”

Above all, Bourdain believed, “you need love.” You need to love the process, the tools, and of course, the people for whom you are cooking, “because the greatest and most memorable meals are as much about who you ate with as they are about what you ate.” If you don’t love it, then what the hell’s the point?

What a sentimental schmuck, I thought, standing alone in my kitchen. The room was hot and thick with the smell of bell peppers and cayenne. I looked over at the table, where my imaginary friend sat drinking wine from a sweaty glass. He nodded, gave a shrug. “Got a better idea?”

Kelsey Miller is an author, speaker, freelance writer, and creator of The Anti-Diet Project. Her upcoming book, I’ll Be There for You, is now available for pre-order. Here’s her week of outfits, as well.

P.S. 17 wonderful reader comments on grief, and what food geniuses eat for lunch.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)